Comment: Migrant workers’ voice – illegal and silenced in the Maldives

As news of socio-political turmoil forces the world to shift its eyes away from the pristine beaches of its beautiful tropical islands, Maldives is losing its untainted image as a luxury tourist destination with more exposure of its appalling track record on human rights. This article looks closely at the lack of both compassion and adequate law enforcement in the Maldivian society’s (mis)treatment of the South Asian expatriate community. It highlights not just the plight of the many Bangladeshi labourers but also the increasing number of South Asian women who are becoming victims of the corrupt and prejudiced criminal justice system of the country.

In addition to the Maldivian population of approximately 330,000, there are 200,000 expatriate workers living in the country, of which a quarter does not have legal status in the country. The Maldives’ treatment of migrant workers is degrading enough for it to be called ‘modern-day slavery.’ The trade generates over US$ 123 million in illegal profits in the Maldives. Last week two Bangladeshi workers, Shaheen Mia and Kazi Bilal were brutally killed bringing to the fore, in tragic circumstances, the unheard voice of the subaltern in today’s Maldivian society.

The government on 25 March banned a planned protest against the deplorable treatment faced by expatriate workers. The protest was planned to highlight the resurgence in violent crime against the South Asian workers. The government of current President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s brother; Asia’s longest serving leader until August 2008, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, also criminalised a planned protest following similar racially motivated assaults in August 2007, threatening expatriates with deportation.

In addition to silencing their voices and denying them agency, the criminal justice system, primarily the Criminal Court and law enforcement authorities perpetuate injustices against the marginalised. The violation of their fundamental rights is facilitated through certain judicial actors who are untrained, uneducated and corrupt. These judges do not pay any attention to the Constitution or domestic laws or international legal instruments the Maldives has ratified. Increasingly women are becoming victims of the system.

Malékalyanam: buying brides

Rubeena
Rubeena Buruhanuddeen

An Indian woman was arrested night before last on allegations of infanticide and attempted suicide, raising concerns that she could be subject to the same judicial torture as Rubeena Buruhanudeen who was kept under pre-trial detention for over four years. The New Indian Express reported that Rubeena was part of a procedure known in India as ‘Malékalyanam’ in which impoverished girls from the Indian state of Kerala are married off to Maldivian men. Rubeena, married off to a Maldivian man under this procedure, ended up in pre-trial detention in the Maldives for over four years, accused of killing the child she had with her Maldivian husband.

Fareesha Abdulla, a Maldivian lawyer who took the case in 2012 on a pro-bono basis, emphasised that the investigation and remand hearings were not conducted with interpreters. “She [Rubeena] can’t understand Dhivehi, but the entire investigation was carried out without an interpreter. Maldives’ police wrote down a statement in Dhivehi and she signed it,” said the defence lawyer. “Infanticide is a serious allegation but when she requested legal aid before I took on the case, the Attorney General denied it,” Fareesha Abdulla explained further.

Before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, the Manmohan Singh government’s Minister for External Affairs also urged Maldives to repatriate such detainees. Modi was scheduled to visit the Maldives last month but with international concerns growing over the arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed on 23 February 2015, took the Maldives off his tour of Indian Ocean island nations. Soon after the diplomatic brushoff, Rubeena was repatriated to India in early March.

Aminath Zara, a Nepalese woman who was fighting for custody of her child with a Maldivian succeeded only after a yearlong legal battle at the Family Court. Zara arrived in the Maldives initially in October 2009 as Tasi Telisa to work at a beauty salon as a beauty therapist. She converted to Islam in 2010. She then left the country in September 2011 and returned after marrying a Maldivian in Sri Lanka in December 2011. When the baby was three, her husband demanded Zara to go back to work; she was the sole breadwinner at times. According to Zara, the marriage came to an end due to her husband’s infidelity while she was away working.

The couple filed for a divorce at the Guraidhoo Magistrate Court in September 2013, but the proceedings and documents were all in Dhivehi, and an interpreter was not offered. The magistrate decided “disobedience” by the wife was sufficient grounds for divorce. As a result Zara became a homeless – and soon to be illegal – single mother. She filed a complaint at the Gender Ministry because her ex-husband was threatening to deport her and gain full custody of the baby. A Maldivian lawyer, Lua Shaheer, who was providing pro-bono legal assistance, said that Zara’s husband repeatedly told her “you are a foreigner, you will have no choice but to leave this country without the child.”

The Gender Ministry provided Zara with temporary accommodation for three months. At the end of the three months she moved back to the island of Guradhoo but could not stand the abuse she was subjected to. With nowhere to live, her former lawyer Lua Shaheer took Zara in to her own home. She is now represented by another lawyer, Fathmath Sama, whose firm took the case on pro-bono.

The husband was represented by Ibrahim Riza, an MP for Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives. The main argument in court was that “the mother is a Buddhist, the mother’s family is Buddhist, and the child would be deprived of a Muslim upbringing.” Zara’s husband also accused her of “abandoning the baby for monetary greed.” Shaheer testified in court that Zara is a practicing Muslim. Even though Zara won custody, the verdict states she cannot leave the country without the ex-husband’s permission if she decides to leave with the baby, effectively leaving her stranded in the Maldives without a place to live.

According to the Indian High Commission in the Maldives, an Indian woman named Manyama Orsu was charged with pre-marital sex and abortion. According to the new penal code, abortions after 120 days of pregnancy are illegal, but a pregnancy caused by rape is an exception to the 120-day rule. Orsu was charged before the new penal code came into effect. The court proceedings against her went on for two and a half years. She confessed to the first charge, and the State dropped abortion charges bringing an end to her arbitrary detention, facilitating her repatriation in late March this year.

There are also reports of other foreign women held at Dhoonidhoo Island Detention Centre on allegations of prostitution, abortion and drug trafficking. Some of these women are victims of sex trafficking and trafficking in persons. But without a systematic mechanism to identify victims, or the mentality to view such individuals as victims, Maldives’ authorities exacerbate psychological and physical trauma suffered by human trafficking victims.

Two foreign women identified by police as sex trafficking victims in 2008 were provided temporary shelter before being repatriated with the help of their home country’s diplomatic mission in the capital Malé. Due to the lack of investigative infrastructure based on the problem of Trafficking in Persons, nobody was prosecuted for the crime, and the case was dropped due to “lack of evidence.”

Lack of infrastructure & lack of will

There are other instances where lack of legislation, and lack of enforcement, have hindered any efforts to tackle the problem. In 2009, a Bangladeshi man was chained inside a small room for weeks; the chains were removed only when the man was put to work. The employer was released after merely four months’ imprisonment due to lack of anti-trafficking legislation at the time.

The Maldives’ government passed anti-trafficking legislation only in 2013, motivated only by the fear of threatened international sanctions. The Bill had been in Majlis since 2011. However, expatriate workers from South Asian countries continue to be victimized under forced labour conditions notwithstanding the legislation. The US State Department’s Report on Trafficking in Persons states that ‘the [Maldivian] government does not have procedures in place to identify victims of human trafficking.’ As a result trafficked persons are further victimized by the corrupt criminal justice system. At the same time, the legal system remains highly inaccessible to foreigners, especially in relation to criminal law.

Transparency International’s local chapter provided over 560 expatriate workers with legal aid in 2014, mostly with regard to cases that consist of forced labour indicators. ‘We believe that migrant workers are the most vulnerable community in the Maldives today, they do not have access to the legal system due to the language barrier,’ Transparency Maldives’ Senior Project Coordinator for its Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre, Ahid Rasheed, has said.

‘Maldivian society in general views Bangladeshi expatriates as lower class non-citizens; harassment against them has been completely normalized. The authorities view them as the problem and not victims of discriminatory attacks and human trafficking offences.’ Highlighting a history of institutionalised xenophobia, Rasheed said ‘the latest word from the government we heard – regarding the protest – questions basic rights afforded to migrant workers, similar to how all previous governments neglected migrant workers’ grievances.’

The Maldives enacted the Employment Act in 2008, and as a Member State of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Act harmonises domestic law of the Maldives with the principles and standards prescribed by the organisation. Independent institutions such as the Employment Tribunal and Labour Relations Authority were established through this Act. ‘Forced labour’ is prohibited and broadly defined to be any instance where there are elements of undue influence, threat, or intimidation with regards to employment. The Act also addresses discrimination at the work place and ensures both local and foreign employees right to freedom from discrimination based on race, religion, social standing, political beliefs, marital status, gender, or family obligations.

It is a common misconception that ‘human trafficking’ or ‘trafficking in persons’ requires illegal entry, similar to ‘human smuggling.’ Human trafficking sometimes begins as smuggling, can end up as exploitation and trafficking, but not all trafficking involves crossing-borders.The United Nations (UN) defines ‘trafficking in persons’ as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation or the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution was ratified by the Maldives in May 2003; a legal instrument recognizing the importance of establishing effective regional cooperation for preventing trafficking for prostitution and for investigation, detection, interdiction, prosecution, and punishment of those responsible for such trafficking.

The ILO defines the following as elements of forced labour: withholding payment and identity documents; abusive working and living conditions; debt bondage; restriction of movement; excessive overtime; deception; isolation; physical and sexual violence; and intimidation and threats. All of which are daily grievances faced by most low-skilled expatriate workers in the Maldives.

report by the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) in February 2009[8] states that Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Indian nationals are detained at the Malé Immigration Detention Center, managed by the Expatriate Monitoring Center under the Department of Immigration and Emigration. Ordinarily detained for not holding a valid passport, visa or work permit. HRCM urged the Maldives to become a member of the International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers (ICRMW). The national human rights committee’s report recommended development and implementation of systematic procedures for government officials to identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups such as undocumented migrants and women in prostitution, who are human trafficking victims. It also urged identified victims of trafficking to be provided necessary assistance and not be penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of them being trafficked.

The US State Department has consistently raised the issue of increasing debt bondage among South Asian migrant workers under its annual Trafficking in Persons report. According to its most recent report, migrant workers pay agents around US$2,000-4,000 to work in the Maldives. There have been reports that some of the 200 registered agents bring migrant workers to the Maldives under terms of employment that amount to criminal acts of deception or fraud, entangling employees in a vicious cycle of debt. The report also recommends that Maldives accede to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

The government has failed at implementing enacted laws, and it appears to be using the rise in violent crime to militarize the police service, and enact legislations that strip away the protections, freedoms and liberties enshrined under the Constitution that introduced democratization to the Maldives. As the focus remains on suppressing dissent from citizens who oppose the regime, the plight of the subaltern stays at the political periphery. The Maldives has yet to fulfill the minimum standards required to eliminate human trafficking.

Human trafficking victims are regularly penalized for acts that are the result of being trafficked; excluded from the legal system; and viewed as offenders. Maldivian authorities are known to detain such victims under inhumane conditions. The real perpetrators of trafficking such as employers, officials, recruitment agents or firms are rarely brought to justice, giving full impunity to these powerful offenders who have connections to transnational organized crime. The insularity observed among majority of Maldivians is reinforced on an institutional level by denying inalienable rights that are to be afforded to all citizens and non-citizens indiscriminately. Sex trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage and other forms of exploitation do not end with enacting legislations or acceding to treaties in order to be accepted as a member of the international community. A stipulation under law is only powerful to the extent to which it is realized, and for the subaltern – without the qualification to even speak – those rights are continually denied.

Mushfique Mohamed is a practising lawyer at Hisaan, Riffath & Co., and also works as a consultant for Maldivian Democracy Network.

This article first appeared on Dhivehisitee.com

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: The scramble for the Maldives

This article first appeared on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

The political changes that marked Maldives’ transition to democracy have not translated into equal distribution of wealth or access to basic public services such as clean water, health care, electricity, waste-management and sewage systems, throughout the country.

The rapid political changes and crises experienced in the past decade has done little to confound the popularized image of the Maldives as a hedonistic paradise for tourists, despite being considered ‘one of the most miserable countries in the world’ for its own citizens.

Continuing this story of two Maldives: the real and the represented, the Yameen government has submitted the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) Bill to the People’s Majlis. In doing so, the government is attempting to sell the illusory tale that liberalisation of trade by autocrats – granting incentives to multinational corporations (MNCs) – trickles wealth down to ordinary citizens.

President Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom, brother of former strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, announced plans to develop SEZs in April 2014 at an investor forum held by the Maldivian government in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.

Notable investors such as US company Blackstone (which acquired a controlling interest in Maldivian Air Taxi “MAT” and Trans Maldivian Airways “TMA” in February 2013), Singapore-based HPL Hotels and Resorts, China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC), the Carlson Group of Companies, Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts, United Bunkering and Trading Group, and Singapore Enterprise were present at the forum.

The SEZs bill entails demarcation of specific geographic areas into zones where special customs regime and laws apply for investors and developers. Developers’ Business Profit Taxes (BPT) can be exempted, and Goods and Services Taxes (GST) are exempted initially for ten years, and can be withheld or exempted for additional years if the SEZs board allows.

Shareholders are exempt from paying BPT on their dividends, and tax relief can be afforded to developers through special procedures by the SEZs board. The SEZs board can also lease land in the Maldives to foreign companies for up to ninety-nine years and Maldivian companies are exempt from tax when acquiring ownership of land.

The SEZs defined under the bill include the following: Industrial Estate, Export Processing Zone, Free-Trade Zone, Enterprise Zone, Free Port, Single Factory Export Processing Zone, Offshore Banking Unit, Offshore Financing Service Centre, and a High Technology Park (Articles 9-18).Government officials have echoed Singapore, Hong Kong, Oman, Qatar and Dubai as examples of SEZs stimulating foreign direct investment.

China and India have been touted by the World Bank as proof of economic growth through introduction of liberal economic policies and legislations such as SEZs. Gradually, China and India began to structurally transform its economies in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, with its GDP growing at an annual average rate of 10% and 6% over the past two decades. In the case of China and India, although SEZs are associated with trade liberalization, studies have shown that it does not always result in human development, economic growth or liberalization of domestic markets (Leong 2013).

Speaking to the media in June 2014, the Minister of Economic Development Mohamed Saeed likened existing tourist resorts to SEZs, possibly to suggest how potentially profitable these policies could be.

Contrastingly, the recently published second Maldives’ Human Development Index report by the United Nations Development Project affirms that despite being lucrative and effective at enabling economic growth, the luxury tourism industry has not alleviated socio-economic inequalities, but rather contributed to it.

Speaking to local news website Minivan News, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb defended the bill claiming that it is in line with decentralization, and that it will shift the focus away from the densely populated capital Malé.

However, a Facebook Community named The Maldivian Economist – a forum where economic and financial policies are discussed – has published a detailed refutation of the notions put forth by the government regarding the SEZs bill. The Maldivian Economist notes that the bill takes power away from the people – local government and elected officials, concentrating wealth under a “centralized autocratic government.” Although the bill purportedly aims to limit Maldives’ reliance on tourism income, it provides additional import duty, tax and foreign labor concessions specifically for hotel, tourism-related, and real estate businesses.

Primarily, the Bill aims to run nine types of SEZs. But the 17-member SEZs board called ‘the Board of Investments’ – made up of unelected government officials, including two presidential appointees – decides how many zones, and of which types would be set up across the Maldives (Article 22).

The bill affords the SEZs board the discretion to extend incentives, such as tax relief or increase the allocation of expatriates and migrant workers upon request. If the bill is enacted, it will prevail over existing laws (according to Article 80(b), 14 existing legislations to be exact) and regulations made prior to it.

Only special SEZ ‘facilitating’ regulations made by relevant governmental authorities, decisions and regulations made by the SEZs board, obligations cited under the developer’s permit, and terms and conditions stipulated under the investment agreement or concession agreement would be applicable within any SEZ (Article 33(b), Article 70).

Although the bill states that discussions shall be made between councilors, and that the Chairperson of the SEZs board and the Minister of Economic Development shall be answerable to the parliament, it does not afford government oversight any decision-making powers.

All the decision-making powers with regard to which investors attain development projects and which areas are designated SEZs is vested with the SEZs board and the President. The SEZs board also decides which existing tourism related businesses could be relocated into an SEZ. (Article 74(c)).

Under an authoritarian government, the SEZs board would end up assuming overwhelming wealth through developers, and in the absence of competition laws invisibilize local fishermen and entrepreneurs who call these SEZs home.

Once the President demarks an area as an SEZ, even if it currently belongs under the authority of a local council, its authority is transferred to the Ministry of Economic Development, as per Article 33(a) of the Bill. The Maldivian Economist states that this allows “all the revenue to bypass local councils and go into the state budget.” Article 37(b) of the bill states that if a development project aims to relocate island communities to the area being developed, the SEZs board has the discretion to grant the developer additional incentives.

The concession agreement with GMR Malaysia Airport Holdings consortium and the Nasheed administration signed in June 2010 to develop and run Malé international airport, was the largest foreign direct investment in the Maldives. The coup regime of Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, which included members of the current government expelled India’s GMR citing ‘void ab initio’, but used religious rhetoric and an ultranationalist anti-India campaign to drive home the now debunked legal argument.

Due to the xenophobic GMR fiasco, it seems as if an entirely different government has submitted the SEZs bill, ready to embrace the globalized world economy.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has dubbed the bill, “the Artur Brothers bill”, invoking top government officials’ links to famous Armenian gangsters, and possibility of increased money laundering due to offshore financing.

Resonating sentiments of SEZs critics, Salma Fikry, one of Maldives’ foremost experts on decentralisation and development, told Minivan News last week that, “it [SEZs bill] is not sustainable nor empowering for the Maldivian population.”

Canadian author Naomi Klein’s book “the Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” is a literary indictment of the radically liberal free-market policies introduced by economists trained at the Chicago School of Economics.

In her view, policies espoused by Milton Friedman and his protégés world-over have historically exploited crises: “wars, terror attacks, coups d’état and natural disasters” in the developing world.

Post-tsunami opportunism during Gayoom’s dictatorship is also mentioned in Klein’s well-researched hypothesis. Following the 2004 Tsunami, with funding from the World Bank and other international bodies, the Maldivian government announced the Safe Island Program in order to relocate island communities.

Klein argues that the regime was merely “freeing up more land for tourism.” This argument is convincing as she notes, “in December 2005, one year after the tsunami, the Gayoom government announced that thirty-five new islands were available to be leased to resorts for up to fifty years.”

To a certain degree, the SEZs bill is similar to the Safe Island Program; it glorifies “the blank”, a country with special privileges and policies for MNCs and foreigners, void of its inhabitants. As the Maldivian Economist has noted, in the Maldivian context of escalating socio-economic disparities, and corruption within the judiciary, government and parliament, this bill will not enable the human development it envisions. Instead, it solely empowers the government and corporations associated with it.

These policies will do more harm than good to a small economy such as the Maldives, which does not have any existing legal barriers to foreign direct investment.

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Comment: Operation Anbaraa

This article first appeared on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

A lot has been written about the music festival on the desert island of Anbaraa attended by local and international DJs, some tourists and 198 partygoers. According to the event organisers, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb and certain officials of the Yameen government allegedly approved the event in an unofficial capacity. Most of what has been said in the Dhivehi media is framed to make it appear that these young people at the music festival were engaging in an orgy of illicit activities on the island, and that the authorities acted rightly by raiding the event and arresting one female minor, 19 women and 59 men present at the festival.

Unfortunately, the susceptible majority of the Maldivian public do not see the political and unconstitutional underpinnings of these arrests, and most often than not, wholeheartedly accept such narratives. This proves beneficial for certain politicians in the Maldives, known for garnering support along ultra-nationalist and Islamist lines, as the Anbaraa incident provides an opportunity to generate just such rhetoric. Their understanding is that the youth are to be blamed for testing the limits of an increasingly conservative society. The awful truth is that people in positions of power indulging in similar behaviour, and much worse, are not subject to the same laws.

The Maldives Police Service claims it raided the island around midnight on Friday night. Detainees have described the operation as a hypocritical, aggressive and excessive display of brute force and psychological warfare. Many of the detainees claim the police used stun guns, grenades, tasers, taser guns, batons, guns and rubber bullets during this operation. Initially flares were shot and the authorities used amplifiers to announce – “you will all be killed if you don’t calm down” while charging at the partygoers. “They shot stun grenades at the centre of the dance floor in front of the main stage”, one of the detainees said. “Rubber bullets were shot in the air and a lot of people were tased with tasers and taser guns,” he continued.

Many detainees said they were all verbally abused and humiliated. Talking of the religious and cultural undertones of this operation, one female detainee said an officer yelled at her, “Are you a European?” A male detainee alleged that two officers grabbed him by the neck and called him an infidel. Another female detainee claimed she was pulled by the hair and ear, and hit on the back. Some of the male partygoers intervened when police resorted to sexualised violence against women – these men are now being detained separately from other detainees, although not in solitary confinement. Some detainees allege they were beaten and showed visible scars. Many detainees note disturbing police actions such as some officers allegedly stealing detainees’ belongings and, in the presence of some detainees, consuming illicit substances found on the island.

After the island came under police control, the detainees were rounded up and brought to the main stage. They were cuffed using plastic clips and kept kneeling down. The island did not have enough water and the Maldives Police Service did not bring any food or water with them for the detainees. When the detainees asked for water it was not provided to all, and some were humiliated for requesting for water. At this point, detainees were allegedly asked to go to sleep. On Saturday morning around 6-7am the police allegedly ordered the catering service to provide food for 198 detainees while the island was under police control. Even at this time, the Maldives’ police did not facilitate rights afforded to those accused or detained under Article 48 of the Constitution. Although police claim that the detainees were informed of their rights, the fact that these men and women were kept incommunicado for about 14 hours proves that the authorities failed to facilitate their inalienable fundamental rights to acquire legal counsel or information regarding the arrest.

Another factor that deviates from standard police practice in such cases is that, according to the detainees, belongings and persons on the island were searched on Saturday afternoon, and none of this was done in the detainees’ presence. Most detainees claim their tents were searched or dismantled while they were handcuffed. And, they claim, not only were their belongings rummaged but articles of clothing and money went missing after the police went through them. Article 161 of the 2011 Drugs Act requires police to split urine samples into two — one sample is to be tested by the Maldives Police Service while the other is to be tested by an institution stipulated by the National Drug Agency. This procedure was not followed, nor were the urine samples collected or processed according to the Urine Specimen Collection, Transportation and Testing for Illicit Drugs Regulation 2012, meaning that many detainees’ urine samples were taken after their remand hearings. Another irregularity is one that contravenes the Judicature Act – detainees were brought to the Criminal Court in Malé even though the alleged offences occurred in Vaavu Atoll. According to the male detainees, only female detainees were given lifejackets while they were being transferred to Dhoonidhoo Custodial Centre from Anbaraa.

During the remand hearings the police claimed that 119 people present at the island were released because they did not find any illicit substances on their person or belongings. This argument does not make sense as the police claimed that the entire island was a crime scene. The argument is further weakened by the fact that some of the detainees currently in custody did not have any illicit substances on their person and only have urine tests as evidence against them. Such contradictions in the claims made by the police suggest that the 119 were released because the police would not have been able to process all detainees within the specified time limit. Law requires all detainees to be brought before a judge within 24 hours of arrest.

These events are reminiscent of infighting among cabinet ministers during ex-dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s regime, which then spills over into the public sphere. If the Yameen government – even if in an unofficial capacity – gave assurances to the organisers of the music festival that it could go ahead, why has the Home Minister Umar Naseer vocally reacted to this incident as if to say the police were working under his orders? The feud between the current president Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom; half brother of ex-dictator and Umar Naseer; the current Home Minister, has been at the forefront since the onset of the presidential election campaign in early 2013.

Some of the detainees are also of the impression that the government may have raided the event to create a distraction from the arbitration proceedings being held at the Singapore Court of Appeal regarding the cancellation of the GMR agreement during the coup appointed presidency of Dr. Mohamed Waheed, which ended in December 2013. In early 2010, the Indian infrastructure company GMR was contracted to build Ibrahim Nasir International Airport by the Mohamed Nasheed administration, which was toppled by his deputy Dr. Waheed and Gayoom loyalists. If the infrastructure giant GMR wins the arbitration case, the Maldives’ government will be subject to approximately US$1.4 billion in compensation.

All these factors create the public perception that current government is not fully in control of the security forces due to infighting, or that the security forces can be mobilised by the current government to carry out politically motivated attacks that have very little to do with morality, crime prevention, implementing the law, or protecting the youth from illegal drugs. Neither perception creates trust or confidence towards the current regime in power, but both highlight the human rights abuse and inconsistency of the implementation of law in the Maldives.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Arab spring, authoritarian winter

The democratic aspirations of many countries around the world rising against authoritarian regimes early last year was, at the time, an uprising many thought would bring progressive change to the political systems in those countries.

It came to fruition through the voice of youth; educated young individuals affronted by meager job opportunities and other socio-economic inequalities perpetrated by the oligarchic superstructures entrenched in these countries.

This was the true spirit of what came to be known as the Arab Spring. The scattered archipelago of the Maldives, in South Asia with its coastlines in the Arabian Sea had the first ever peaceful transition into democracy by a Muslim-majority country in August 2008, a precursor to the events in the Middle East last year. However, a year later the stories from Egypt, Syria, Libya and Tunisia do not resonate with the ambitions of the resistance movements seen throughout the Middle East last spring.

In Egypt, former autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak first came to power three years after Maumoon Abdul Gayoom did in the Maldives.

Mubarak was deposed in a popular uprising backed by the military – a conclusion unfathomable to many, even in the most well-informed US diplomatic circles. Although defiant developments, these ‘Black Swan’ moments of history (as coined by Lebanese-American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb) have proven to be more beneficial towards Islamists and the elite, rather than the young liberal movement with political and economic grievances who initiated, organised and executed the revolts.

When Cairo was bustling with news of elections in June this year, military and powerful businessmen still held on to power and the latter continued to monopolise the economy. In the weeks leading up to the elections, confrontations between civilians and the military regime in power turned violent. An onslaught of police brutality and violation of fundamental rights directed systematically towards pro-democracy protesters took place in all of the Arab Spring countries. Rampant instances of human rights abuse in the Maldives following the dubious transfer of power in February have been repeatedly condemned by Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Reporters Without Borders and many other international organizations. A group of Maldivian women who were arrested earlier this year alleged that police sexually harassed them whilst they were under police custody. International bodies have called for investigation into all these accesses by the police but to no avail.

If there is a pattern to be realised, it is that the ruling elite and their grip on the leading elements of the military – formed through years of power -seem to plunder the determination of the people in these countries to have a genuine democracy.

Similarly to the Egypt, in the Maldives the power vacuum left over after the removal of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was filled by Islamists and Gayoom loyalists.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s engagement with Egyptians has been a long and significant since its establishment in 1928. The Adhaalath Party, an Islamist party in the Maldives, has little akin to the Muslim Brotherhood in that regard. The party joined the December 23rd coalition made up of the then opposition parties. The coalition was made up of Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP); the former dictator’s neophyte attempt at multi-party politics which he later defected.

He then created the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), while his family friend, businessman-come-politician Gasim Ibrahim, created the Jumhoree Party (JP), while the Dhivehi Qaumy Party (DQP) was created by Dr Hassan Saeed and Mohamed Jameel Ahmed who held cabinet portfolios under both Gayoom and Nasheed’s administration. It was this coalition of dictator loyalists who created a religiose Maldivian ‘rally round the flag’ effect that aided the military and police backed coup.

In the case of the Middle East, the transition seemed sudden and spontaneous. The Maldives deposed the three-decade dictator through the first ever multi-party democratic elections in the country in October 2008 as prescribed in a new Constitution which came to effect in August that same year. Mohamed Nasheed came into power with a citizen-centric manifesto with development and social welfare pledges.

It could be seen as the inexorable result of slow, erratic outbursts of civil unrest that began with the death of Evan Naseem under police custody in 2003. His death caused the highly restricted yet obsequious Malé and nearby islands to be worked into a fervor unheard of under Gayoom’s autocratic rule, apart from sporadic uproars in the 1980s.

Again in 2004 Nasheed’s arrest sparked another nationwide resistance. Gayoom was forced to embark on a reform agenda due to local and international pressure, which intensified due to economic upheaval following the 2004 tsunami. Mubarak’s stronghold on the judiciary weakened and pressure for judicial reform came a year before Gayoom came under pressure to initiate judicial and constitutional reform in 2004.

Eventually in four years a democratic Constitution with separation of powers, independent institutions and a bill of rights was enacted.

The reversal of the hard-earned democratic transition however came quite precipitously when police and military mutinied. The result was a dubious power transfer believed by majority of Maldivians to be a ‘televised coup d’état’ against democratically elected government. In Egypt, Mubarak’s loyal military did the opposite by siding with majority of Egyptians last year.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and the Maldives the similarity is the patrimonial style of governance, however historically and culturally these countries differ greatly. Former French colony Tunisia is culturally and aesthetically more westernised than its counterparts. Libya and Syria have more potential for continued sectarian conflict. Nonetheless, the political discourses of Egypt and the Maldives are more similar compared to the dynamics of the other Arab Spring countries.

The propensity for Islamism however differs at present. The Adhaalath Party does not have any seats in the People’s Majlis, whereas Muslim Brotherhood, Al Nour and Salafists have secured a majority of Egypt’s parliament. It is difficult to tell if Islamists will benefit to a similar extent in the Maldives during next year’s parliamentary elections, but given the social and cultural rise in fundamentalism it is probable in the near future.

The military’s role in transitions and socio-economic disparities further exacerbated through patrimonial form of government are also shared themes between the two countries. Gayoom and his predecessors ruled the Maldives in a highly centralised form of government which translated into systemic inequalities between the capital Malé and the outer islands. These were the disparities the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s manifesto sought to alleviate, however many development projects and the free health care system initiated by the MDP have now been discontinued.

The first democratically elected President Nasheed of the Maldives has been on trial since August this year with civil and criminal allegations against him. His party and supporters maintain that the charges are politically motivated to stop him from contesting in next year’s elections.

Meanwhile citizens who protested the legitimacy of Mohamed Waheed’s post-‘coup’ government in February are also being prosecuted nationwide. In all countries authoritarianism is prevalent following the hopeful spring last year. The crackdown on dissent this year has been exceptionally brutal in the Middle East. It is clear that post-colonial nations have been unable to reform their police and military to serve their citizens.

In Egypt the military might have done what was popular amongst its citizens but in no way does it discount their self-interest. Security forces continue to make political decisions as they were trained to do during the colonial era. The Arab Spring that started at the end of 2010 and bloomed to full glory in 2011 may have brought with it much hope, but since the ousting of their respective symbolic autocrats, neither the system of government nor the politicised police and military have democratised. This failure is making possible the resurgence of authoritarianism and an increasingly Islamist future for the region just as it has done in the Maldives.

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